At Finnish Embassy, the heat is on
Thursday, March 18, 2010
On a recent Friday evening in the basement of the Finnish Embassy, a half-dozen men, all sweating profusely and wrapped in white towels, turned to resident sauna authority Kari Mokko to settle a dispute.
"Kari," Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, said through the vapor, " 'schvitz' isn't a Finnish term, is it?"
"Shivit?" a bewildered Mokko replied when asked about the Yiddish word for steam room. He stood up, sans towel, to ladle some more water onto the sauna's rocks. "Shwi? What?"
Despite his unfamiliarity with the term, Mokko, the embassy's press secretary, is running a monthly Power Schvitz for the policy staffers behind Washington's power players -- and the journalists who cover them.
The Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society of D.C. counts among its 150 members the operatives who make Washington spin: Capitol Hill staffers, public-policy wonks, lobbyists, administration officials -- and reporters eager to pick up some off-message analysis.
"You don't wear your politics on your sleeve when you are not wearing sleeves," said Alex Conant, a former RNC spokesman currently working for Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. "Mostly you just talk about how damn hot it is."
The society's founder and gatekeeper, Mokko is a 43-year-old Tampere native, with a trimmed goatee and chiseled cheekbones. On hiatus as the anchor of "Silminnäkijä," or Eyewitness, a Finnish Broadcasting Co. current-affairs program, he is at home with reporters, delighting in the exchange of phone numbers, story leads and private information at the sauna. He believes networking in the nude to be an absolute moral good.
"It became a great 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine' sort of thing," he said, flatly.
The sessions began two years ago to compensate, Mokko said, for Finland's "predictable" reputation and low international profile. "We don't cause problems," he explains. "We needed something to catch attention." (The Finnish ambassador lays low in his own sauna, in the official residence.)
The society's private Facebook page, which Mokko maintains, expounds that the society's mission is to "exchange breaking D.C. news and hot scoops, create buzz and get refreshed in great company" and to "spread the word about the joys of Finnish sauna culture and other great achievements of Finns inside and outside the Capital Beltway." Conant, for example, offered that the sauna society inspired him to visit Helsinki last summer.
Mokko says his great ambition is to host Vice President Biden, who lives directly across Massachusetts Avenue, but in the meantime he keeps the guest list small, diverse and bipartisan: "I try to be civil and benevolent." He regales guests with a barrage of Finnish sauna facts ("We have more saunas than cars," "When Finnish peacekeepers are sent to Africa, the first thing they do is build a 190-degree sauna") and argues tirelessly for the superiority of Finnish saunas over Swedish ones. ("Theirs is a lot milder: 130 degrees. It's just like a hot room.")
Regulars include Christina Sevilla, deputy assistant U.S. trade representative and lead singer for the group Suspicious Package, which has played embassy events. There's also Rick Dunham, the Hearst Newspapers bureau chief, who hasn't shown up since building his own Finnish sauna in his basement last month. ("In the embassy, it's an endurance test of Americans to see how long they go before they wilt," he said. "Now I understand the science of it.")